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"Excessive" Forfeitures -- When Do Asset Seizures and Forfeitures Run Afoul of the Eighth Amendment?

"Excessive" Forfeitures -- When Do Asset Seizures and Forfeitures Run Afoul of the Eighth Amendment?

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In Texas, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals has used a somewhat "mathematical" formula to determine whether an asset forfeiture is "excessive" under the Eighth Amendment.
In Texas, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals has used a somewhat "mathematical" formula to determine whether an asset forfeiture is "excessive" under the Eighth Amendment.

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Categories:Types, Business/Law
Published by: Charles B. "Brad" Frye on Jul 05, 2011
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09/03/2013

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“Excessive” Forfeitures – When DoAsset Seizures and ForfeituresRun Afoul of the Eighth Amendment?
In Texas, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals wrote an opinion in December of last year thatseems to fix something of a mathematical formula in considering whether a forfeiture is"excessive" under the Constitution. As you know, the Constitution prohibits the imposition of "excessive fines" in the Eighth Amendment, and that prohibition extends to asset forfeiture cases.Or, at least that’s what we argue. Even that basic proposition is under attack and not yet well-settled, according to the prosecutors and some courts.Basically, the theory of this defensive argument in asset seizure and forfeiture cases isthat even if the property is otherwise subject to forfeiture under the law and the facts, the courtshould restrict the forfeiture because it is "excessive." However, the law is somewhat unsettled,as is mentioned in the case we discuss below, and, as I mentioned above, there is the thresholdargument as to whether the Eighth Amendment argument applies to asset forfeiture cases at all.Justice Lee Gabriel of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals wrote the opinion of the courtreleased two days before Christmas, 2010, in a case styled "$27,877.00 Current Money of theUnited States vs. The State of Texas." Here are the facts from Justice Gabriel's opinion:“In March 2007, Carrollton Police Department Narcotics Officer Mai Tran receivedinformation from a confidential informant that Roberts was trafficking marihuana andalprazolam (also known as Xanax) from a house in The Colony, Texas, where Robertslived with his girlfriend and some friends. Officer Tran obtained a search warrant from aCity of Carrollton magistrate (with jurisdiction in Dallas and Denton Counties) andexecuted the warrant at 4249 Malone Avenue, The Colony, Texas (the Malone address),in Denton County.At the Malone address, Carrollton police officers found 8.5 tablets of alprazolam, 2tablets of hydrocodone, 4.48 grams of marihuana, and $4,857 in cash. Roberts wasarrested.
 
After the arrest, Officer Tran received additional information that Roberts, fearing thatthe police would raid his home, had moved drugs and money to two separate places.Specifically, the information was that Roberts had moved drugs to the house of JamesSavoldi, a friend and alleged "runner" for Roberts, and had moved money to Roberts'sparents' house. Carrollton Police Officer Jeremy Sanchez, a canine handler, and his dog,Bosko, performed a "sniff search" on Savoldi's home at 4601 Freeman Drive, TheColony, Texas (the Freeman address), in Denton County. Bosko "alerted" to an odor atthe front door of the house. Based on the information from the informant and the sniff search, Officer Tran obtained a search warrant for the Freeman address.During the execution of the warrant, Savoldi admitted to the police that he was holdingthe drugs for Roberts. Savoldi had hidden a black gym bag with approximately twopounds of marihuana at the Freeman address. When he heard from Roberts's girlfriendthat the police had searched the Malone address, Savoldi took the bag of marihuana fromhis house to a hotel in Addison, Texas, where it was later confiscated by Carrollton policeofficers. Roberts pleaded guilty to the felony offense of possession of more than fourounces but less than five pounds of marihuana for the marihuana that the officers found inthe Addison hotel room.While in jail, Roberts made a phone call and advised an unknown person that "themoney" was in a bag under his brother's bed at Roberts's parents' house, 4628 ArcherDrive, The Colony, Texas (the Archer address), in Denton County. Officer Sanchez andBosko conducted a sniff search around the exterior of the Archer address, and Boskoalerted at the bottom of the garage door. Officer Tran obtained a search warrant for theArcher address from the same magistrate in Carrollton as the previous two warrants andexecuted that warrant. There, the police found $23,020 under the brother's bed, in bills of various denominations, tied with hair bands. In a written statement to the police,Roberts's brother denied any knowledge or ownership of the money.The money recovered from the Archer address was taken to the Carrollton Police Station,where Officer Sanchez conducted another sniff search. This time, he took three new paperbags and put the money in one of them. Each bag was closed by folding over the top andall three bags were placed in a hallway about six feet apart. Bosko sniffed all three bagsand alerted on the sack containing the money.In April 2007, the State filed its notice of seizure and intended forfeiture, alleging, amongother things, that Roberts owned the money and that it was contraband as proceeds fromthe sale of narcotics. Roberts denied the allegations and asserted affirmative defenses,including illegal search and seizure.After the asset forfeiture hearing, the trial court issued forty findings of fact and fourconclusions of law in which it concluded that the $23,020 seized from the Archer address"is the proceeds of Brendan Roberts's illegal drug trafficking activities," and is thereforecontraband. The trial court ordered the money to be forfeited to the State under article59.02 of the code of criminal procedure. This appeal followed.”
 
After losing in the trial court, Mr. Roberts appeals and, on appeal, argued, among otherthings, that the forfeiture of the $23,020 was an unconstitutionally excessive fine under theEighth Amendment. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals disagreed.Justice Gabriel acknowledged the basic constitutional tenet that the Eighth Amendmentprohibits the imposition of excessive fines. U.S. Const. amend. VIII.But, Justice Gabriel continued, expressing some doubt about whether the EighthAmendment prohibit actually applied to forfeiture cases:“The United States Supreme Court has determined that the Eighth Amendment applies toforfeitures "if they constitute punishment for an offense." United States v. Bajakajian, 524U.S. 321, 328, 118 S. Ct. 2028, 2033 (1998). Whether the forfeiture of drug proceeds issubject to the Eighth Amendment is unsettled in Texas. Compare U.S. v. Betancourt, 422F.3d 240, 250 (5th Cir. 2005) (stating that after Bajakajian the Eighth Amendment stilldoes not apply to the forfeiture of drug proceeds) with One Car, 1996 Dodge X-CabTruck v. State, 122 S.W.3d 422, 427 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 2003, no pet.) (applying theEighth Amendment to article 59.02 forfeitures); see also Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art.59.05(e) (Vernon 2006) ("It is the intention of the legislature that asset forfeiture isremedial in nature and not a form of punishment.").“Assuming without deciding that forfeiture of the $23,020 is subject to the EighthAmendment's excessive fines clause, and under the analysis set forth in Bajakajian, we donot believe the forfeiture in this case to be unconstitutionally excessive. Roberts's offenseis a serious one involving illegal drugs. The offense occurred in the context of otheralleged illegal activities, including possession of other illegal substances. The informationprovided by the informant was that Roberts was trafficking drugs and the evidence in thiscase showed that Roberts was knowledgeable enough of police investigations of drugdealers to move his drugs and money to separate locations for hiding. The civil forfeiturestatute unquestionably targets drug traffickers. See Tex. Health & Safety Code Ann. §481.112(b) (Vernon 2010); Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. arts. 59.01(2)(B)(i), 59.02(a)(Vernon Supp. 2010). The evidence in this case demonstrated that Roberts had no othersource of income and that the extent of his criminal activity went beyond mere possessionof marihuana. The marihuana had a street value of $7,000, drug trafficking is known tocorrelate with violence, see 1992 BMW v. State, No. 04-07-00116-CV, 2007 WL2608364, at *2 (Tex. App.-San Antonio Sept. 12, 2007, no pet.) (mem. op.) (quotingThomas v. State, 916 S.W.2d 578, 583 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1996, no writ)) ("Studiesclearly demonstrate the direct nexus between illegal drugs and crimes of violence."), andthe trial court expressed concern that there was "$27,877.00 worth of harm" to the State.So the seriousness of Roberts's criminal activity and the destructive effects of drugs ontoday's society weigh heavily in analyzing proportionality.Justice Gabriel then concluded that Roberts’ offense was serious, and justified theforfeiture of the currency:

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